The rumors are true. There are superheroes living among us, and they’re ready to tell their stories. No, not Superman or Wonder Woman this time. Instead, it’s RoboDad, a retired veteran named Tracy Williams, changing his world through the power of high-tech braces.
Williams is living with a spinal cord injury that left the muscles on his left side weakened and prone to spasm or even giving out. The 40-year-old has endured two neck surgeries and a back surgery. Disks C-7 through C-3 in his spine are fused with a titanium plate. Much of his life is spent in a wheelchair or using a cane for support. But thanks to months of using a special therapy system called Bioness at Lodi Memorial Hospital West, the father of six is now spending a lot more time on his own two feet.
“I end up doing more than I know I can do,” Williams said. “I’m still learning how to swing my arms while I walk. I’ll see myself in mirrors or windows and I look like RoboCop.”
Sporting a bright polo shirt, a close-cropped haircut and a touch of grey in his goatee, Williams is quick to drop one-liners funny enough to make a team of therapists crack up. That winning personality doesn’t slow down while he prepares the Bioness system.
It takes about 15 minutes for Williams to suit up. He straps on a pair of cuffs under his knees, wraps another thin piece around his thigh and places sophisticated sensors in each of his shoes. Pulling a wireless remote from the pocket of his khaki shorts, Williams starts the program that allows him to leave his wheelchair with confidence.
As though he never had a spinal injury.
In the beginning
Williams grew up in Sacramento, living in public housing on Seavey Circle before moving to Oak Park. He had a rough start, with an absent father and some relatives that were arrested or even in jail.
Williams took a different path. He spent four years in the Air Force Junior ROTC at Hiram Johnson High School and enlisted in the Air Force at age 18 right after graduation in 1992.
His Air Force career was an active one. Williams attended basic training in Texas and technical training in Mississippi. He was later assigned to McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento for five years. In 1998, he went overseas, first to Osan Airbase, South Korea, and then to the 374th Communications Squadron-Tokorozawa Transmitter Site near Yokota Airbase, Japan.
Every hero has an origin story. Williams’ began in 2000 when he was moving a massive plastic barrel filled with water during a security exercise on Yakota Airbase. He didn’t realize he had strained his neck until after a shower a couple of days later. One awkward pull of the towel on his head and his neck didn’t move properly for days. Another neck injury weeks later caused numbness in his left side. Williams thought he was having a stroke. He got his neck checked out by a doctor, where they noticed the nerve damage.
“It never got better after that,” Williams said.
His mobility grew incrementally worse in the following years, but his life grew richer.
In December of 2000, Williams was selected for officer training, which he began in January 2001. He married his wife, Trina, in 2003, whom he met at California State University, Sacramento, four years previously. Williams is a father to six children ranging from preschool to high school. These milestones were punctuated with a decade of surgeries, doctors appointments and physical therapy session.
The first neck surgery was in May, 2001, to fuse two vertebrae together.
Despite the constant pain, Williams continued with the Air Force, including a tour of duty in Kuwait that ended in 2004 for a second neck surgery. This one added a titanium plate to four more vertebrae.
There have been many falls and several trips to the emergency room. A car accident in 2010 led to a major back surgery in June of that year. He needed a power wheelchair in March 2011, after a second car accident exacerbated his injuries.
For a man used to an active life of running, rock climbing, skiing, rappelling and playing volleyball, this life of limitations was like a heavy blanket over his spirit.
Williams grew depressed. He knew he needed a tool to keep moving.
Desperate for a solution, he scoured the Internet, looking for others with similar problems. That’s when he discovered Bioness. He took the idea to a VA appointment in early 2013 but was rejected. Instead, they offered him a chunky foot brace.
“I have kids, and I want to play. I need something that will lift my foot, not hold it in place,” Williams said. He decided to do this on his own. He learned that Lodi Heath offered Bioness therapy, so he contacted their physical therapy department to begin treatment in late December 2013.
Williams made the 45 minute drive from his home in Discovery Bay to Lodi about twice a month for therapy sessions at Lodi Memorial Hospital West. The exterior of the complex on Lower Sacramento Road is nondescript, with tidy landscaping, but inside, Williams learned to use the device that would change his life for the better.
A super transition
Physical therapist Linda Muhlenkamp fitted him with the hospital-owned Bioness device to start his sessions.
The hospital has a system for the hand and the lower legs that is used for inpatient acute rehabilitation. Lodi Health is the only organization that offers Bioness therapy in the greater Sacramento area. The next closest ones are in Palo Alto and Chico.
The system is commonly used on patients ages 30 to 60. That often includes stroke patients or people with injuries to their nervous systems. With those patients, it’s about retraining muscles. Williams has long term muscle weakness, so he needs to focus on making them stronger.
It’s an expensive set. One system, meaning one cuff and one sensor, can cost about $6,200. The combo pack that Williams uses is close to $10,000. Few insurance companies will cover it, and those that do require extensive proof that the pricey therapy is medically necessary. Muhlenkamp says in this case, there’s no question.
“This guy’s going to walk again instead of being stuck in a wheelchair. There’s a clear benefit,” she said.
Williams was able to get the cost of his home system covered by the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs. His progress was closely monitored by Muhlenkamp, both for the hospital’s records and as required by the VA.
In December, Williams could walk 15 feet with a cane in 37 seconds. By June, after months of weekly therapy with Bioness, he could complete that task in 33 seconds. With the device engaged, it took 11 seconds.
“He now has a functional pace. He can cross the street in time and he can do it without a cane. He may even return to running, later on down the road,” Muhlenkamp said.
The transformation is striking. During a test with Muhlenkamp, Williams walked along a hallway without the device, bracing himself on a banister with one hand and using a cane in the other. His shoulder were curved inward, his stride was stunted and his eyes were fixed on empty space as he focused on each step. With the Bioness system engaged, Williams’ whole body bloomed. He stood taller, his stride was longer and his chest puffed out with pride.
“We actually have to slow him down a little, so he doesn’t overdo it,” said Muhlenkamp. “He was hunched over walking at first, but this is his helping his back.”
Bioness works because of something called functional electrical stimulation.
The system replaces the signals the brain naturally sends to nerves to create muscle movement. These signals were blocked by Williams’ spinal injury, but the muscles and the nerve supply were still healthy. When WIlliams puts weight on his feet, the sensors notice and send an electric signal to points in the cuffs.
The minor electric ping is like a miniature Taser straight to the muscle. It’s a message in neon lights telling each tendon, “Do this! Now this! Move this part!”
The signal doesn’t hurt because it’s been adjusted to the specific levels Tracy’s muscles need to “hear.”
At first, Williams wore the gear on a strict schedule. Years of wheelchair use meant his core muscles weren’t used to carrying much weight. His body needed time to grow stronger. A month later, he could wear the system for eight hours at a time.
It’s a simple superpower: Walking. But it’s exactly the one Williams needed to get his life back.
“I’m now able to go around the car and open the door for my wife. That was big for me. I can go to a movie, walk in and sit down. I can walk into church,” Williams said.
Working hard and growing stronger
Despite his incredible progress, Williams has a nemesis lurking in the shadows of his recovery. It’s severe back pain and it has put him out of commission for days at a time. Standing up and sitting taller have overworked his core muscles, making them tense and demanding. At home, Williams uses an inversion table to stretch out his back in the morning, and a special pillow to support his knees during exercises. Therapy sessions have changed to include address his back problems and include more stretching of his hips and spine.
But he’s not a complainer.
“After all I’ve been through, I can handle a little stiffness in the morning,” he said.
There are still a few restrictions on him. He is not permitted to lift more than 10 pounds. No pushing, pulling, bending or overhead reaching. Definitely no ladders, and limited stair use.
That’s OK. This superhero has something to keep fighting for: His family.
His wife is delighted to have her husband back.
“He stands up so tall. I went on a date with my husband, and he was walking,” said Trina Williams.
Daughter Jordan rolls her big brown eyes when she hears her dad call himself IronMan, but she can’t help grinning at his enthusiasm.
Just like she couldn’t help her squeals of delight when her dad opened a special box that arrived on their doorstep in April. That’s when William’s home system arrived, and he could begin using Bioness more often.
“It was like Christmas. I said, ‘Dad, you have your legs!’” said Jordan Williams, 11. Her sister Arabella puts their dad’s progress more succinctly.
“He used to waddle like a penguin. Now he walks normal,” said the 4-year-old.
The best part of the superhero getup? No one can see it under his clothes. His secret identity is safe. But Williams is telling everyone anyway.
At a recent family reunion, he sported a T-shirt that read, “Brand new mood.”
“That’s how I feel. I have a brand new mood, and I’m a brand new man,” he said.